Ultimate control over strategic decisions at the University of Malta looks set to be wrested out of the hands of the Rector and into a board controlled by the Prime Minister.
This plan was included in a consultation document for a planned University Act, which was published in April – just before the election campaign – but escaped media attention.
As envisaged, a new governing board will be tasked with approving the University’s plans and decisions, including its annual budget, academic plan and business plan. The board will be chaired by the University Chancellor and will include between three to five members – all directly appointed by the Prime Minister. According to the document, this is being done “because the institution is publicly funded”.
The members must not be MPs, must not have any direct interest in the University or government ministries, must have experience in managing large organisations and must be skilled in overseeing financial management and human resources. The Rector will not be part of this board, but will be “encouraged to attend meetings whenever he is invited to do so”.
University Rector Alfred Vella will have fewer powers under this new law
Instead, the Rector will form part of an executive board, alongside a chief operations officer and a non-academic chosen by the University Council. This executive board will get to formulate strategic and institutional plans for the University, but will first have to send them to the governing board for approval.
The document states the proposal for the shake-up in the University governance structure is based on research conducted on trends at European higher education institutes and on the governance structures within the best rated universities in the world.
However, it seems to contradict with the consultation document’s foreword by education minister Evarist Bartolo, who wrote that one of the University Act’s main objectives is to promote institutional autonomy. Autonomy is also listed as the primary objective of the proposed changes, according to a glossy document explaining its rationale.
English lecturer Mario Aquilina told Lovin Malta there is “significant concern” among academics about the implications this governance shake-up could have on the University’s autonomy.
“Placing the University under the government’s strict control risks limiting the possibilities for different views to be aired,” he said. “Academics should be true to their discipline without fear what they teach could be turned against them because it goes against what the government is saying.”
In a Facebook post last month, Aquilina said the document includes commendable points, such as the emphasis on access, autonomy and standards. However, he flagged the proposed change in governance structure as the “most worrying issue in the document”.
“While [the document] keeps emphasising the importance of autonomy, it also suggests the introduction of a Governing Body appointed exclusively by the Prime Minister,” he wrote. “These two, in my view, cannot coexist. We read, ‘members are appointed by the Prime Minister, given that the institution is publicly funded’. How can the University act as the ‘conscience of society’ by being institutionally free when its decisions are vetted in a direct way by the Government through a Governing Board that is chosen by the Government?”
“We read, ‘The Executive Board reports to the Governing Board. Plans are approved by the Governing Board.’ I fail to see how this in any way is coherent with the idea of institutional autonomy emphasised in the Consultation Paper.”
“While I believe that the document does have some positive recommendations, it is also weakened by fundamental inconsistencies at the level of vision which should be addressed in the drafting of the legislation.’
Brenda Murphy, secretary general of the University Academic Staff’s Union (UMASA) said the union will take a stance on this proposal following a consultation meeting with Evarist Bartolo that has been scheduled for Friday. On Wednesday, Bartolo will also hold a consultation meeting about the proposed Act with University students. The University Students’ Council is encouraging all students to attend.
Asked by Lovin Malta whether this proposal threatens the University’s autonomy, Bartolo stressed the proposed governance structure is open for discussion and consultation.
“I’m ready to listen and take on board proposals to make the University accountable and transparent in line with public universities in Europe,” he said.
Edited on 7th November: Brenda Murphy was wrongly referred to as UMASA president when she is actually secretary general